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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part I – Seekers, Ranters & Quakers in the Civil Wars & Interregnum, 1647-1657.   Leave a comment

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Prophesying the Millennium:

Until 1957, historians had maintained that we could know very little of the real beliefs of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, since the information we did have came from their enemies. They were accused as regarding themselves as divine beings and of holding that they could, therefore, commit murder, robbery and fornication without sin. But, as Norman Cohn pointed out in the appendix to his iconic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, published that year, the ‘scandalous tales told of them’ were ‘merely conscious or unconscious slanders’. These were accusations which were made against mystical groups of the later middle ages, but they could not be checked in any detail against their own writings. To do that, Cohn looked into the brief but hectic revival of the ‘Free Spirit’ which took place in England during and after the Civil War. 

Like the writings of their predecessors, those of the ‘Ranters’ of the later period were ordered to be burnt. But it was much harder to destroy a whole production of a work than a few manuscripts, and stray copies of Ranter tracts survived. Viewed as historical documents, these tracts have established that the ‘Free Spirit’ really was exactly what it was said to be: a system of self-exaltation amounting to self-deification; a pursuit to of total emancipation which in practice could result in an anarchic eroticism; often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition. But the interest of the Ranter literature is not only historical. If the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Abiezer Coppe were sufficiently vigorous and colourful to earn him an honourable place in the gallery of literary eccentrics, Joseph Salmon deserves recognition as a writer of real poetic power.

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Thanks to the work which has been done on the radical religious ideas of Cromwell’s England, not least by Christopher Hill, in his 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, there is now no lack of information concerning the social milieu in which the Ranters flourished. Indeed, this author was counselled by his tutors not to pursue research for his PhD on this period on the basis that he would probably have to limit himself to the study of an obscure sect. It was only some years later that I returned it to investigate the Independent puritan enthusiasm which ran high among the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army and among civilians, and that neither the Episcopalian establishment nor the Presbyterian puritans were able to channel the flood of lay religiosity. Many felt that the time had come when God had when God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered in many quarters, and millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power as Lord General and then Lord Protector, was also moved by such hopes. Thousands of artisans in London and elsewhere lived in daily expectation that through the violence of the civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would return to rule over it.

In the late 1640s, the Quakers were often referred to as ‘Roundhead rogues’, and in May 1648 the ‘Digger’ pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley made it clear that the word ‘Roundhead’ was used especially as a slur on the political radicals in the New Model. Edward Burrough was mocked as a Roundhead even in his pre-Quaker days. But it appears to have been used mainly in reference to political radicalism, and it was only during the intense period of political instability and uncertainty which followed the execution of the King and ended with the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653. In 1649-50, Winstanley was moved by supernatural illumination to found the ‘Digger’ community near Cobham in Surrey. Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away’, Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state’, a primitivist utopian commune in which private property, class distinction and human authority would have no place. At the same time, groups of religious enthusiasts multiplied rapidly. As one pamphleteer remarked in 1651,

… it is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breed Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillars of Aegypt.

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‘High Professors’ & Heretics:

The heresy which this writer had particularly in mind was that of the Ranters. These people, who were also known as ‘high attainers’ and ‘high professors’, became very numerous about 1650. Some were to be found in the Army, where there were cases of officers being cashiered and publicly whipped, and of a soldier being whipped through the City of London ‘for ranting’. There were also groups of Ranters scattered throughout the country. Above all, they abounded in London, where they numbered many thousands. The first Quakers – George Fox (above), James Nayler and their followers – often came into contact with the Ranters. Hostile observers such as Episcopalians or Presbyterians, often deliberately conflated Quakerism with the Ranters; for both alike discarded the outward forms of religion and saw true religion only in the ‘indwelling spirit’ in the individual soul. The Quakers themselves, however, regarded the Ranters as erring souls to be converted. George Fox has a curious passage about his first meeting with Ranters, in prison in Coventry in 1649. He later wrote:

When I came into the jail, where these prisoners were, a great power of darkness struck at me, and I sat still, having my spirit gathered into the love of God. At last these prisoners began to rant, and vapour, and blaspheme, at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said they were God; but that we could not bear such things. … Then seeing they said they were God, I asked them, if they knew whether it would rain tomorrow? They said they could not tell. I told them, God could tell. … After I had reproved them for their blasphemous expressions, I went away; for I perceived they were Ranters.

Amongst the Ranters whom George Fox found in the prison at Coventry was Joseph Salmon who had recently left the Army.  Not long after his encounter with Fox, Salmon put forth a paper or book of recantation; upon which they were set at liberty. From 1650, Salmon was for some years a minister in Kent, preaching frequently in Rochester Cathedral. One of his works was a Ranter tract, Divinity Anatomised, which has been lost, but others, including the Recantation, survive to reveal a very considerable poetic talent. The first time we know of George Fox coming to the notice of authority was earlier in the same year of his Ranter encounter when he was imprisoned at Nottingham. This was, of course, a crucial year in the history of the English Civil Wars, the year in which King Charles was tried by Parliament and executed, and the beginning of the Presbyterian attempt to impose its rigid Calvinist discipline and morality by legislation on the English people, as it had succeeded in Scotland.

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There were radical political movements among the ordinary people, such as the Levellers, led by John Lilburne (pictured below), who later joined the Quaker movement, and the True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’, for whom GerrFenny Drayton

ard Winstanley was chief pamphleteer. The scientific revolution of ideas had not yet spread, but the revolution in religious thought which had produced the Continental Protestant Reformation had led to the establishment of a Commonwealth in Britain which was a place and time of extreme and independent views, bitter controversy, and uncertainty about the nature of religious authority. Many groups of people had been expelled from, or abandoned by, the established Anglican churches, or had withdrawn themselves from them; they were generally known as ‘Seekers’ because they waited for a new revelation of God’s truth. The religious persecutions of the previous century, in particular, the Marian burnings were still strong in the memories of such people, and if they need to be reminded of those sufferings, they had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to remind them, with its graphic illustrations of the martyrdoms.

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George Fox stood out as a striking and unexpected figure. He was twenty-five, long-haired (unlike the ‘Roundheads’), peasant-featured and astute. He hailed from the village of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, in the corner of the East Midlands and East Anglia which formed the stronghold of radical religious independents. There he had been working as an apprentice to a dealer in fleeces and hides and worked as a shepherd. He was semi-literate, most of his later letters being dictated to others. Leaving home at the age of nineteen to become an itinerate seeker, he found no teacher who could assure him of the truth until, in 1647, as he wrote in his Journal, he heard a voice saying to him, There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition. At this time, William Dell and many other ‘Familists’ believed that academic education was no help in understanding the Scriptures. From 1646 onwards books by Henry Niclaes and man other Familist and Antinomian writers were being published. There were also tendencies even among orthodox Puritans which pointed in the same direction. William Erbery, the Welsh Baptist was one of those who wrote of the ‘free grace’ which came through the preaching of Preston and Sibbes. John Preston taught that the ‘elect’ knew by their own experience that the Bible was true and that God was:

 … as he is described in the Scripture such have they found him to be to themselves. …

Richard Sibbes declared that If God be a father, then we are brethren, it is a levelling word. Tobias Crisp held that sin is finished  and that:

If you be freemen in Christ, you may esteem all the curses of the law as no more concerning you than the laws of of England concern Spain. … To be called a libertine is the most glorious title under heaven.

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s Kiddermindstewhen some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were also harmless in the period following the Restoration when taught by Thomas Traherne. But in between times, the Revolution seemed to stir up infinite possibilities and inflamed the passions of the poor. If the majority in a congregation should excommunicate their pastor, no synod could do anything about it. From this time onwards we get plentiful evidence of the emergence of a whole number of opinions which later became associated with the Ranters. Thomas Edwards reported many sectaries who said Christ died for all and a bricklayer from Hackney who said that Christ was not God, or at least that he was as much God as Christ was. A Rochester man who associated with Baptists said that Jesus Christ was a bastard; so did Jane Stratton of Southwark. Some sectaries held that God his children as well sinning as praying; others held that they cannot sin, but if they sin, Christ sins in them. Other ‘errors’ recorded by Edwards were that God is in our flesh as much as in Christ’s flesh and that all shall be saved at last. A pamphlet of 1648 argued that if a man were strongly moved to sin, after praying repeatedly, he should do it.

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Anthony Pearson reported that many apprentices and young people joined the Ranters in the late 1640s, and Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster pastor claimed that Quakers emptied the churches of Anabaptists and separatists of ‘the young, unsettled’. We think of refusal of ‘hat honour’ and the use of ‘thou’ by Quakers as gestures of social protest, but they also marked a growing refusal of deference from the young to the old, from sons to fathers. Fierce battles were fought in the home, between generations. The preachers of free grace, including William Erbery and William Dell, aimed to liberate men and women simpler and less theologically sophisticated, especially in this time of revolutionary crisis, their teachings were easily pushed over into Antinomianism, a sense of liberation from all bonds and restraints of law and morality. When Thomas Collier told the Army at the end of September 1647 that God as truly manifests Himself in the flesh of all his saints as he did in Christ, he must have known that many of the rank and file listening to him would believe themselves to be saints.

068Again and again, in spiritual autobiographies of the time, we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency and Anabaptism before ending as Seekers, Ranters or Quakers. Controversies over church government or over baptism split congregations, producing conscientious scruples and endless bickerings. Since they believed that the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversies was one solution, a rejection of all sects, and of all organised worship. Such men were called Seekers and included William Walwyn, John Saltmarsh, John Milton (right) and possibly Oliver Cromwell himself.

Radical Independents – The ‘Seekers’:

Many of these men had connections with the radicals and were bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarian enthusiasm. But by the 1650s, Richard Baxter felt that:

When people saw diversity of sects in any place … it greatly hindered their conversion. (Many) would be of no religion at all.

William Erbery was described in 1646 as the champion of the Seekers. He had been ejected from his living in Cardiff in 1638 for refusing to implement Laudian liturgy. He was a convinced supporter of Parliament during the civil war, becoming a chaplain in the New Model Army. As such, Erbery led other ranks in criticism of Presbyterian ministers, tithes and persecution. He preached universal redemption and, according to Edwards, denied the divinity of Christ, as well as declaring that any layman may preach. Erbery modestly saw himself …

… bewildered as a wayfaring man, seeing no way of man on earth, nor beaten path to lead him. Let him look upward and within at once, and a highway, the way is found in Christ in us, God in our flesh. … God comes reigning and riding on an ass, that is revealing himself in the basest of men.

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The Presbyterian ministers sent to investigate the Army said that Erbery was a ‘Socinian’, preaching damnable doctrine and blasphemous errors. He stirred up ‘the multitude of soldiers’, they claimed, against the Presbyterian ministers. In January 1648, Erbery called upon the Army to destroy the power of the King and rectify popular grievances. He objected to the officers’ version of the Agreement of the People because it established a state church and did not extend toleration to the Jews, though he approved of most of it. King and Parliament, he thought, …

… were the two powers who kept the people of the Lord and the people of the land from their expected and promised freedoms. (The Army) had the call of the kingdom, petitioning by several counties and the common cry of all the oppressed in the land (acting) in the immediate power of God … for all saints, yea for all men also. God in the saints shall appear as the saviour of all men. No oppressor shall pass through them any more. The day of God has begun, though the saints have been and are still in confusion. For a few days we cannot bear with the want of kings and rulers, …

The saints drew back when they should have gone forward since the Army was at its best when it acted. Erbery still wanted to see God in the army of saints, wasting all oppressing powers in the land. In July 1652, Erbery wrote urging Oliver Cromwell to relieve the poor, as well as attacking tithes and lawyers’ fees. He advocated steeper taxation of rich citizens, racking landlords … and mighty moneyed men … to form a treasury for the poor. He wrote that the burden of tithes on them in England at that time was greater than under popery or in popish countries. There were no longer any ‘true ministers’ and God, in the last days, would not appear in ministers at all, but in magistrates, both civil and martial. The apostasy of the churches had prevailed for centuries. When kingdoms had first become Christian, he claimed, they had become churches, and national churches began. But then also Antichrist came to be great and Popery, prelacy, presbytery were ‘the three beasts’. The state Church of the Commonwealth in England was no better than the Episcopal Church. It was the last ‘Beast’ or church-state. In the depth of his disillusion, Erbery declared that:

The mystery of Anti-Christ … is manifested in every saint, in every particular church …  The greatest work that God hath to do with you this day, is to make you see you are dead. God is going out and departing from all the preaching of men, that men may give themselves wholly to public acts of love to one another, and to all mankind; therefore all religious forms shall fall, that the power of righteousness may rise and appear in all.

But once in power, the ‘seeming saints’ would inevitably be corrupted. In civil government, they were far superior to their predecessors,

But as for spiritual graces, how soon have they withered in the wisest? Good men in Parliament, when come to power how weak were they? … The people of God turn wicked men, that wicked men may turn to be the people of God. The lords and nobles of old could do better with it (power), because gentlemen born; but when so much money comes into the hands of poor saints, oh how they hold it and hug it and hunger after it, as dogs do after dry bones!

But Erbery managed to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. He gave up the stipend he got from tithes. He wrote that:

The life of the people of God, and mine also, is so unlike Christ that I have often wished … to go away from myself and from my people. … they are mine and I am theirs.

By 1654 he had decided, unlike the Fifth Monarchists, that the people of God should not meddle at all in matters of state since Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. This attitude of resignation after the failure of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653 made John Webster feel he had to defend Erbery against the charge of ‘falling off’ and ‘compliance’.  But to shake off the yoke before the season came was to rebel against the Lord. Erbery seems, in fact, to have been prepared to accept Cromwell as a king and was, according to Webster, rather a presser forward than an apostate, but he seems to have abandoned hope of a political solution in his lifetime:

It may be other generations may see the glory talked to be in the last time, … our children may possess it, but for our parts we have no hopes to enjoy it, or in this life to be raised out of our graves. … all the scattered saints this day do dwell, and I also with them waiting for deliverance.

Erbery was often accused of being ‘a loose person or a Ranter’, of having a ranting spirit; he was also alleged, like the Ranters, to be devious, covering himself by double meanings. Erbery denied the accusation of Ranterism, but not always wholeheartedly. He spoke of the holiness and righteousness in truth flowing from the power of God in us, which by the world hath been nicknamed with Puritanism, and in some now Ranting, though he refused to justify those profane people called Ranters, who blasphemed, cursed, whored, openly rejoicing in their wickedness. He admitted that he was commonly judged by good men as one of those owning this principle and practising their ways, but denied saying that the Ranters were the best saints: his point had been that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters, lusting after the wisdom, power, glory and honour of this present world. At least Ranters were honest about it:

These, it may be, lie with a woman once a month, but those men, having their eyes full of adultery, … do lie with twenty women between Paul’s and Westminster.

John Webster, noting that ‘by some weaker spirits’ Erbery’s doctrine concerning the restitution of all things, the liberty of the creation, … the saints’ oneness in Christ with God was misunderstood or led to practices which Erbery regretted. Even in print, Erbery was often very rude and coarsely jocular about what others might regard as sacred subjects. He thought that holy communion should be a full meal, with lots of drink, and was clearly not averse to a pipe of tobacco after prayers. In these practises, of course, he was far from alone, but the fact that he referred to them in print naturally drew comments from his critics. It is clear that he was very much at home in the world of taverns and tobacco in which many of the sects used to meet. William Erbery died in 1654, and his epitaph was not unfittingly written by one of his friends:

Some are dead that seem alive,

But Erbery’s worth shall still survive. 

‘Bridges’ across turbulent waters:

As early as 1641, ‘divines’ were complaining that religion had become the common discourse and table-talk in every tavern and ale-house. One preacher told the House of Commons in July 1646 that ale-houses generally are … the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.  In London, the Ranters met at a victualling house kept by one of their number in the Minories, and at the David and Harp in Moor Lane, in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, kept by the husband of Mary Middleton, one of Lawrence Clarkson’s mistresses. According to George Fox, the Ranters had:

some kind of meetings … but they took tobacco and drank ale in their meetings, and were grown light and loose. … (They) sung and whistled and danced.

036John Bunyan (right) thought the Ranters talked too much, one contemporary meaning of the verb ‘to rant’. This may be one reason why the Quakers began their meetings in silence. Yet Fox understood their point. When ‘a forward, bold lad’ offered him a pipe, saying ‘Come, all is ours,’ Fox, who was no smoker, took his pipe and put it to my mouth, and gave it to him again to stop him, lest his rude tongue should say I had not unity with the creation. The last phrase of Fox’s tells us that we should never fail to look for symbolism in what appear the extravagant gestures of seventeenth-century radicals. Ranter advocacy of blasphemy, it has been suggested, was a symbolic expression of freedom from moral restraints. Abiezer Coppe was alleged to have sworn, uninterrupted, for a full hour in the pulpit: a pox of God take all your prayers. 

An obsessive desire to swear had possessed Coppe in early life, but he resisted it for twenty-seven years, before making up for his abstinence. He would rather, he declared, hear a mighty angel (in man) swearing a full-mouthed oath than hear an orthodox minister preach. He made a distinction between swearing ignorantly, i’th dark, and… swearing i’th light, gloriously. Even those on the more mystical and quietist wing of the Ranters were also in the habit of using ‘many desperate oaths’. Bunyan reveals the tensions which lay behind Coppe’s 1646 ‘indulgence’ in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Swearing was an act of defiance, both of God but also of ‘middle-class society’, and of the puritan ethics endemic in it.  As Bunyan remarked, ‘Many think to swear is gentleman-like’ and certainly, many courtiers and members of the aristocracy and gentry classes could get away with it: royalists in the civil wars were known as ‘Dammees’. For the lower orders, however, swearing could prove expensive: one ‘debauched seaman, after being fined at the rate of 6d. for an oath, placed 2s. 6d. on the table in order to have his money’s worth. Lower-order use of oaths was a proclamation of their equality with the greatest, just as Puritan opposition to vain swearing was a criticism of aristocratic and plebian irreligion. But it also expressed a revolt against the imposition of middle-class Puritan mores, interfering with the simple pleasures of the poor for ideological reasons. Bibliolatry led to a phobia about swearing; rejection of the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life made it possible again and with it a release of the repressions which gave the Puritan middle class their moral energy.

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Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) was the most celebrated of the Ranters. He had grown up in Warwick. In his adolescence, he was obsessed by a conviction of his sinfulness. A prey to neurotic anxiety, he kept a daily register of his sins, fasting and imposing vigils and humiliations on himself. In 1636 he went up to Oxford as a ‘poor scholar’, at first a Servitor at All Saints and then as a Postmaster at Merton. By this time his morals were less strict and he would often ‘entertain a wanton Housewife in his Chamber’ overnight. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his career at Oxford and he left the University without taking a degree. He was a Presbyterian for some time, like Lawrence Clarkson, and later became an Anabaptist minister. In this capacity, he was very active in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, ‘dipping’ some seven thousand persons, and officiating as a preacher to a garrison. For these activities, he was imprisoned in Coventry in 1646. Other misfortunes were brought upon Coppe by the growing eccentricities in his religious life. He says that his father and mother forsook him and his wife turned from him in loathing, that his reputation was ruined and his house was set on fire. These events, in turn, prepared the way for his conversion to Ranterism, which took place in 1649. Besides adopting the usual pantheism of the Free Spirit, he seems to have adopted Adamitic ways. According to Wood in Athenae Oxonienses:

‘Twas usual with him to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a Wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked.

It was no doubt for such behaviour that he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks at Warwick. Clarkson recorded that he later belonged to the group of Ranters who called themselves ‘My One Flesh’. Coppe was commonly listed together with Clarkson as a leader of the orgiastic Ranters. Coppe was among the drinking, smoking Ranters who appeared in George Fox’s prison at Charing Cross.  He seems to have been an alcoholic, but above all, he indulged his long-suppressed craving to curse and swear. Richard Baxter asked with horror how it came to pass that, as followers of this man, …

… men and women professing the zealous fear of God, should … be brought to place their Religion in revelling, roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing ordinarily by the Wounds and Blood of God, and the fearfullest cursing that hath been heard.

Besides his swearing from the pulpit, mentioned above, Coppe swore at the hostess of a tavern so fearsomely that she trembled and quaked for some hours after. Some of his ‘disciples’ were put in the stocks at Stratford-upon-Avon for their swearing. It was as a Ranter in 1649 that Coppe produced his only noteworthy writings, including his two Fiery Flying Rolls which resulted in his arrest in January 1650. He was imprisoned at Coventry for a second time, and then at Newgate. Parliament issued an order that the Rolls, as containing many horrid blasphemies, and damnable and detestable Opinions, be seized by mayors, sheriff and justices of the peace throughout the Commonwealth and burnt by the public hangman. Copies were to be publicly burnt at Westminster and Southwark. The Act of August 1650 was largely directed against Coppe’s works. Finally, the committee of Parliament which examined Clarkson in September 1650 also examined Coppe shortly afterwards. During the interrogation, the prisoner feigned madness, throwing nut-shells and other things about the room. In Newgate, Coppe received many visitors, and by ‘smooth arguments’ converted not a few to Ranterism. In the end, however, the strain of imprisonment began to tell. At the beginning of 1651, he issued from prison a Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestation of Abiezer Croppe against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug. 1650. This was followed five months later by a full recantation, Copps Return to the wayes of Truth… In this Coppe attributed his imprisonment to some strange actions and carriages … some difficult, dark, hard, strange, harsh and almost unheard-of words, and expressions. Of his Ranting, he said:

The terrible, notable day of the Lord stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night. … And the cup of the Lords right hand, was put into mine hand. And it was filled brim full of intoxicating wine, and I drank it off, even the dregs thereof. Whereupon being mad drunk, I so strangely spake, and acted I knew not what. To the amazement of some. To the sore perplexity of others. And to the great grief of others. And till that cup passed from me, I knew not what I spake or did.

Now that his understanding had returned to him, he begged that the Fiery Flying Rolls be thrown into the fire. As a result of this Petition to Parliament and Council of State Coppe was released, after a year and a half in prison. Baxter, who had spoken with Coppe, was certain that he was no madman; and in September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford, and thereafter his life was unadventurous. After the restoration, he practised as a ‘physic’ at Barnes under the name of Dr Higham, through to his death. Coppe’s writings give the impression of eccentricity rather than of any kind of psychotic state. For understanding the religion of the Free Spirit they are of great value. They also throw a good deal of light on the ‘social doctrine’ of the Free Spirit. Coppe affirmed that all things belong, or ought to belong, to the Lord alone, and utterly condemned the institution of private property. The urge to apostolic poverty and public self-abasement, normally regarded as characteristically medieval, can be seen here in the seventeenth-century England. We can also observe in these writings how easily such a rejection of private property can merge with a hatred of the rich, as happened on the Continent in earlier centuries, giving rise to an intransigent and potentially violent form of revolutionary millenarianism.

A. L. Morton, the historian of the Ranters, suggested that migratory craftsmen, freed by the breakdown in the economic system during the Revolution, men who were unattached and prepared to break with tradition, provided much of the support for the movement. We should bear in mind that the mobile itinerant population, evicted cottagers, whether peasants or craftsmen, slowly gravitating to the big towns and there finding themselves outsiders, sometimes forming themselves into religious groups which rapidly became more and more radical. It is very difficult to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who were called Ranters. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Levellers or early Quakers, but the Levellers did issue programmatic statements, and the pamphlets of Fox and Nayler can be accepted as authoritative for the Quakers. There was no recognised leader or theoretician of the Ranters, and it is extremely doubtful as to whether there was ever a Ranter organisation. As so often in the history of radical movements, the name came into existence as a term of abuse.

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The Regicide & the Rump:

Following the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the Rump Parliament followed up the regicide with acts abolishing the office of the monarch and the House of Lords. It called them acts, not ordinances, because they required no other ascent now but that of the Commons. But behind the Rump stood the army, to whose force it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The Rumpers themselves promised, in their act of 17 March that abolished the monarchy, that they would dissolve the ‘Long Parliament’ themselves so soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people that hath betrusted them.  The army had seemingly committed itself to support a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution and regulated the frequency and duration of parliamentary sittings, brought significant alterations to the law of the land and changed the whole relationship between church and state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that the ‘caretaker’ régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past.

Through the share they had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’, the Levellers had reached the peak of their influence. From the early months of 1649 onwards, there was a burgeoning of various groups even more radical than the Levellers: the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up the exclusive rule of their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the ‘Diggers’, who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property; and the ‘Ranters’ who believed that those who had discovered the godhead within them were liberated from all conventional morality. Of these groups, only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. No-one could have foreseen that the Rump would go on wielding sovereign authority over England and Wales for four and a quarter years after Charles I’s execution, longer than the whole duration of the first Civil War, and almost as long as Cromwell’s whole rule as Lord Protector.

The Rump’s temper became more conservative over that period, as the mood became more revolutionary outside parliament. The majority of the remaining MPs were deeply unsympathetic, if not intolerant towards the aspirations of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and extremist sects of all kinds. Its concessions to religious liberty were to be limited and grudging, its record in social reform miserably meagre, and the professional interests of its influential lawyer-members made it deeply suspicious of any changes in the substance and operation of the law, where reform was overdue. The period from 1649-53 was one in which the Commons, not Cromwell, was in charge of government policy. He was immensely influential, but as Lord General of the Army, he was away from Westminster and on campaign in Scotland and Ireland for much of the period, and when these commitments did allow him to be in the Commons, he by no means got his own way. Even after 1653, when he became Lord Protector, the case of James Nayler, the Quaker leader, three years later, demonstrates the limited power Cromwell had to protect religious liberty.

The Rump was as hesitant in grasping the nettle of religious settlement as it was in placing the Commonwealth on firm constitutional foundations. By the early 1650s, the old dividing line between Presbyterians and Independents was no longer so sharply drawn, since by then many doctrinally orthodox Calvinists persuasions were prepared to put their differences aside in order to resist the rising tide of radical sectarianism and popular heresy, of which the writings of the so-called Ranters were an extreme example. There was a small party of sectarian enthusiasts within the Rump, including the army Colonels Harrison, Rich, Fleetwood and John Jones, who managed to secure the establishment of a Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, with a similar one being established for England’s northern counties. But the majority of MPs were suspicious of religious enthusiasm and did not want to incur greater unpopularity by seeming to encourage it. They were aware of the strong preference in the country at large for retaining a national church with a publicly maintained parochial ministry, and many of them shared it. An established church was already in being when the Rump came to power, with its faith, worship and government defined by the Westminster Assembly and given statutory authority by the unpurged parliament. But parliament was divided on whether to continue implementing the Presbyterian system, and the motion to confirm it was lost on the vote of the Speaker. In practice, a wide variety of worship and church organisation prevailed in the provinces and parishes.

While the Rump shied aware from the contentious business of providing for the propagation of the gospel on a national scale in England, it continued to demonstrate those things that it was against, like sin and blasphemy. Between April and June 1650 it passed acts against non-observance of the sabbath and against swearing and cursing, as well as the notorious one which punished adultery, incest, and fornication with death, even on a first offence. Mercifully, it was very little enforced. A Blasphemy Act followed in August, less savage than the Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 and aimed mainly at the Ranters, though both George Fox and John Bunyan fell foul of its provisions. It was specifically targeted at the Ranters’ denial of the necessity of the civil and moral righteousness among men (which) tended to the dissolution of all human society. It denounced anyone who maintained himself or herself as God, or equal with God; or that acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, theft, etc. were not in themselves sinful, or that there is no such thing as sin but as a man or woman judgeth thereof. The penalty for the first offence was six months in jail, banishment for the second and death if the offender refused to depart or returned. However, judges interpreting the Act refused to allow JPs, clergy and juries to extend its provisions to the sincere if unorthodox religious opinions of a ‘Ranter’ like Richard Coppin, or a Quaker like Wiliam Dewsbury.

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Above: Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Rump of the Long Parliament, 1653.

The House took longer to confront the issue of toleration, but in September 1650 it finally repealed the recusancy laws to the extent of repealing the penalties for non-attendance of parish Sunday services, provided that those who absented themselves attended some other form of public worship. Outside the broad national church, the separatist congregations which chose and supported their own pastors enjoyed considerable liberty under Cromwell’s Protectorate, between 1653 and 1658, though it was not unlimited. It did not extend to those whose teachings or actions were considered blasphemous, such as the Unitarian John Biddle or the Quaker James Nayler. Cromwell was reluctant, however, to see these men punished as severely as his parliament desired, and he was more indulgent towards Quakers than most gentry magistrates. But he gave no countenance to those who tried to break up the services conducted by the parish churches in what they called ‘steeple-houses’, and he was even more firmly against so-called Ranters who preached and practised the belief that the spirit had liberated them from the moral code enjoined by Holy Scripture. He was not in favour of ‘toleration’ in the late-modern sense who regards an individual’s religious convictions as an entirely private matter, so long as they do not impinge on the rights or liberties of others. Neither was his ideal a kind of religious pluralism involving a variety of sects, tolerated out of indifference, but a community of all who had ‘the root of the matter’ in them, in a manner transcending differences over outward forms and rites.

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Cromwell’s Commonwealth & its Critics:

On 3 September 1654, Cromwell opened the first real Parliament of his Protectorate. He made a speech on the duty of ‘healing and settling’ in which he contrasted the state of the nation just before the Protectorate was established with what it was at that date. Then, the strife within it had grown so high as to threaten not only ordered government but the very fabric of society, the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years: a nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman. This, of course, was an exaggeration, as even more was his allegation that ‘men of Levelling principles’ had been undermining property itself and bidding to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. Turning to religion, he said it had been in an even worse condition than the civil state, what with the unchecked preaching of ‘prodigious blasphemies’ and the invocation of so-called faith to justify the breaking of ‘all rules of law and nature’. He referred to the Ranters, although he did not name them as such. Such horrors, he said, had brought to mind the iniquities prophesied for ‘the last times’, for Christ returned to earth in judgement. The power to check them had been undermined by a ‘second sort of men’, who while not justifying such evils denied the civil magistrate any authority to intervene, on the ground that matters of conscience and belief lay outside his sphere.

054Cromwell, pictured on the right on the ‘Dunbar medal’, given to those like the Quaker James Nayler who had fought in the Third Civil War, reaffirmed his own commitment to liberty of conscience but defended the claim of the civil power to a role in promoting true religion and punishing manifest wickedness. He upheld the right of godly and gifted laymen to preach, but he repudiated the sectarian extremists who denounced the whole concept of an ordained ministry as antichristian. He adopted a gentler tone when he went on to condemn  ‘the mistaken notion of the Fifth Monarchy’, acknowledging that many honest, God-fearing men adhered to it.

It was one thing, however, to expect that Jesus Christ will have a time to set up his reign in our hearts, but quite another for men upon their own conviction of God’s presence with them to claim a sole right to rule kingdoms, govern nations, and give laws to people. But he drew a strict line between belief and practice in this regard:

If these were but notions, they were to be let alone. Notions will hurt none but them that have them. But when they come to practices, as to tell us that liberty and property are not the badges of the kingdom of Christ, and to tell us that instead of regulating laws, laws are to be abrogated, indeed subverted, and perhaps would bring in the Judicial law instead of our known laws settled amongst us, – this is worthy of every magistrate’s consideration, especially where every stone is turned to bring confusion.

031Such people, he said, not only threatened anarchy at home but obstructed the work of settlement in Scotland and Ireland and hindered the negotiation of peace with Holland, Portugal and France. The next year, however, Cromwell reaffirmed his message of the need for broad liberty of conscience, and for a charitable attitude within the nation, in a declaration issued on 20 March 1654, at a time of a long drought:

Is brotherly love, and a healing spirit of that force and value amongst us that it ought? … Do we first search for the kingdom of Christ within us,  before we seek one without us?

… Do we not more contend for saints having rule in the world, than over their own hearts? … Do not some of us affirm ourselves to be the only true ministry, and true churches of Christ, and only to have the ordinances in purity, excluding our brethren, though of equal gifts? … Do we remember old puritan, or rather primitive simplicity, self-denial, mercy to the poor, uprightness and justice?

034Of course, this ecumenical concept of religious liberty did not extend to Roman Catholics, although they were no longer persecuted for practising their faith. Most Episcopalians and many Presbyterians, like Richard Baxter (right), still blamed Cromwell for the King’s execution, believing also that the King could have saved his own life if he had agreed to give up the Prayer Book and the Bishops in the Church of England.

Baxter thought, simply enough, that many of the things that Christians quarrelled over could be resolved if they were prepared to give way a little. Although Baxter had become Chaplain to Cromwell’s cavalry after the Battle of Naseby, the two men did not get on well with each other, though they respected one another. Both may have been fonder of talking than of listening. Cromwell sent to Baxter to come to listen to him, speaking for an hour about the great things God had done for England through him. Baxter got tired of listening to him without a turn. When it finally came, he told the Lord Protector that he thought the proper way of governing was by King and Parliament. Although not the only preacher to tell him this (Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans had also told him that he should restore the monarchy under Charles Stuart), Cromwell lost his temper with Baxter and they went on arguing for a further four hours, at the end of which, Baxter reported:

” … I saw that what he learned must be from himself, being more disposed to speak many hours than to hear one and little heeding what another said when he had spoken himself”.

Baxter had liked Cromwell best when he was still his Lord General. He had believed him to be honest and truly religious, but he thought that power had corrupted him as Lord Protector. He himself pointed out, however, that it was very difficult to know what to believe about Cromwell the man, for … no man was better and worse spoken than he, … as men’s interests led their judgements”. On his side, Cromwell thought highly enough of Baxter to wish to talk to him in a bid to gain his approval and blessing, though in this he failed.

Quakers v Ranters:

Quakerism had been the ‘legitimate’ offshoot of the ‘Seekers’, a religious movement which, as we have seen, was powerful long before the time of Fox. The Ranters were like its illegitimate and wayward offspring whose unpleasant label only faintly foreshadowed their practises, as reported by admittedly antagonistic scribes. The Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’, which formed the core of Fox’s message and had first attracted Nayler to Quakerism, became with the Ranters a belief in their absolute oneness with God. This belief carried with it by implication the assertion of personal infallibility, together with an all-embracing licence. Fox’s judgement of, as many saw them, this pernicious ‘sect’ did not err on the side of charity, and when one of its ‘members’ sought to ingratiate himself with the Quaker leader he repelled him with the exhortation: “Repent thou swine and beast!” He followed this up with a reference to “the old Ranters in Sodom”. Nayler himself, in the early months of his ministry, records their presence at his meetings in no uncertain tones:

Their filthy hearts was plainly manifest to the view of all the people, and the terrour of the lord was upon them all the while they was amongst us, not being long, so that they fled away.

Ranterism, though closely akin to Quakerism in its doctrines, was sharply distinguished by its disregard of authority and lack of moral restraint. Yet since their doctrines were so closely aligned, there was constant merger and migration between one and the other, something which Episcopalian and Presbyterian propagandists were not slow to play up in their literature. Contemporary commentators long tended to lump together the early Quakers with the Ranters. There was an unreasoning hostility of conservative critics, who believed that both Ranter and Quaker ideas must lead to licentiousness and therefore assumed that they did; there was also the likelihood that many early rank-and-file Quakers had in fact not entirely shaken themselves free from Ranter ideas and practices.  We hear of Ranters, as of Fifth Monarchists, after the execution of Charles I and the defeat of the Leveller Uprising at Burford. The latter event no doubt relates to the origins of the two groups, as it does to the emergence of the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1651, All the world now is in the Ranting humour. A Southwark physician in 1652 defended the Ranters against ‘time-serving saints’ because of their charitable attitude towards the poor. But John Reeve ascribed to them a pretended universal love to the whole creation. At first, he was attracted by their

… imagination of the eternal salvation of all mankind, though they lived and died under the power of all manner of unrighteousness.

In the early fifties, Bunyan found some Ranter books held highly in esteem by several old professors and one of his close companions turned a most devilish Ranter and gave himself up to all manner of filthiness. He denied the existence of God or angels and laughed at exhortations to sobriety. Other persons, formerly strict in religion, were swept away by Ranters: they would condemn Bunyan as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained to perfection that could do what they would and not sin, a doctrine which Bunyan himself found very seductive, I being but a young man. He was especially tempted to believe that there was no judgement or resurrection, and therefore that sin was no such grievous thing, turning the grace of God into wantonness. Bunyan’s answer to Ranters became the orthodox one: they lacked a conviction of sin. Samuel Fisher, the Baptist, said that they despised the ordinances of Christ and …

… run beyond the bounds of modesty and all good manners. The rabble of the ruder sort of Ranters. … are willingly ignorant, because of the tediousness of that thought to them, that there is any more coming of Christ at all. Some deny the existence of Christ: others claim to be Christ or God.

In 1649, when George Fox first met the Ranters in Coventry jail, they had shocked him by claiming to be God, some of them stating that there is no creator God but that everything comes by nature. Richard Baxter declared that Ranters set up the light of nature under the name of Christ in man. With the spiritual pride of ungrounded novices in religion, they believed that God regards not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart: that to the pure all things were pure, which they took as licensing blasphemy and continuous whoredom. Fortunately, he went on, the ‘horrid villainies’ of this sect speedily extinguished it, but reflected discredit on all other sects. John Holand, a hostile but not unfair witness, said that Ranters called God ‘Reason’, as Gerrard Winstanley had also done. For Ranters, ‘Christ in us’ was far more important than the historical figure who died in Jerusalem, …

… and all the commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are the fruits of the curse. Since all men are now freed of the curse, they are also free from the commandments; our will is God’s will.

The existence of evil was a subject to which Ranters paid a good deal of attention: simple believers found their arguments difficult to answer, such as the age-old one: If God is omnipotent, why does he permit evil? Others denied that there was any such thing as sin; if there was, it must be part of God’s plan. The day of judgement is either an invented thing … a bugbear to keep men in awe. Lawrence Clarkson believed that, in any case, there was no life after death:

… even as a stream from the ocean was distinct in itself while it was a stream, but when returned to the ocean was therein swallowed and became one with the ocean: so the spirit of man whilst in the body was distinct from God, but when death came it returned to God, and so became one with God, yea God itself.

Clarkson added that he would know nothing after this my being was dissolved. An extreme form of this doctrine attributed to Ranters was that those are most perfect … which do commit the greatest sins with the least remorse. Clarkson came very near to espousing this himself in his writing:

… till I acted that so-called sin I could not predominate over sin. (But now) whatsoever I act is … in relation to … that Eternity in me … So long as the act was in God … it was as holy as God. 

This included, he insisted, those acts by thee called swearing, drunkenness, adultery and theft, etc. Clarkson  (1615-67) was a native of Preston. Brought up in the Church of England, in youth he showed Puritan leanings; he regarded dancing on the Sabbath with particular horror. He became a Presbyterian and then an Independent, an Antinomian in theology. He became a ‘parish priest’ in Norfolk, but then led a wandering life. In 1644, he became an Anabaptist and the following year was imprisoned for ‘dipping’. Up to the end of 1648, he followed another of the major religious tendencies of the time, that of the Seekers. During this period he was an itinerant preacher in Kent before becoming a minister in two more parishes, in Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire. He also began to write religious tracts, but not being a University man, he was very often turned out of employment and was therefore constantly in financial straits. Taking a commission as a chaplain in an Army regiment, he tried to find a parish in London on leaving it in 1649, having been cashiered for blasphemy. He held a living at Pulham for a short time until he was turned out for preaching universal salvation. He then became Baptist and, under Erbery’s influence, a Seeker, preaching for monies in each faith.

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Clarkson developed Familist ideas of Luther’s reformation in his preaching but carried them considerably further. He also began to practice what he preached, escaping from one ‘maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected’ giving his body to other women whilst being ‘careful for moneys for my wife’, travelling the country with Mrs Star, and resisting the opportunity when ‘Dr Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped’ at a Ranters’ meeting. Early in 1650, Clarkson became a Ranter and was soon the notorious leader of the particularly licentious group, ‘My One Flesh’ to which Abiezer Coppe also belonged. He was arrested and examined. As on a previous occasion, he stood on his rights as a ‘freeborn subject’ and refused to answer incriminating questions. On 27 September 1650, the House sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment for his ‘blasphemous’ book, A Single Eye, to be followed by banishment. This latter sentence was never carried out, however, and on his release, he resumed his wandering life before joining the ‘Muggletonians’ in 1658, a sect of extreme ascetics, writing several tracts on their behalf.

Quakers first entered the ‘arena’ of the Commonwealth as a wing of the government party in the years 1651-53, enjoying the protection of the military authorities., and of local gentlemen of radical inclinations. They also had sometimes the more enthusiastic support of the Army rank-and-file. Those who administered the North of England or Wales could not afford to alienate Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers. George Fox had been in prison for nearly a year at Derby in 1650, but in the North, as we can see from his own Journal, he enjoyed a good deal of protection in 1651-52. Even hostile JPs, of whom there were many, had to proceed cautiously against him. Persecution began again, spasmodically, from the end of 1652, when the dissolution of the Rump appeared imminent, and again after 1653 when the gentry felt they had been given a free hand. Fox was imprisoned at Carlisle, but then the relatively radical Barebones Parliament met: a letter from it got Fox released and his jailor put in his place in the dungeon. In Wales, JPs also protected Quakers as a lesser evil than ‘papists’ or ‘pagans’. It was the Quakers themselves who alienated the clergy through indiscriminate attacks on the sanctity of ecclesiastical buildings made it for any priest to support them and continue to hold his living.

In 1654, Fox was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government, but he was well received by Oliver Cromwell. Those who wished ill towards the Quakers were those who resented Army rule; their views were strongly represented in the Parliament of 1656, as was demonstrated from the debates over James Nayler. Dark hints were dropped that the spread of the Quakers had been due to official encouragement, indeed that Quakers were to be found in the government itself.  Major General Philip Skippon, Nayler’s main Army opponent, had been regarded as ‘Parliament’s man in the Army’ in 1647. The rapid expansion of Quakerism both in the Army by 1649 and more broadly in the South and East of England in the early 1650s had made the ‘men of property’ apprehensive of ‘some Levelling design’ underlying the well-organised movement. The fact that Quakers were said to have reclaimed ‘such as neither magistrate nor minister ever speak to’ might seem reassuring after Quaker pacifism was firmly established and known to be accepted by all members of the sect. But that was to come later in the decade, and after the Restoration. In the mid-fifties, it was still far from being the case.

Baptists & Quakers – Bunyan v Fox:

Ranterism was better at destruction than it was at construction. In 1650, it was by listening to the ‘errors’ of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Cromwell’s Huntingdonshire and elsewhere were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’. In Cleveland, in 1651 it was meetings that had been ‘shattered’ under Ranter influence that turned to Quakerism. At that time, both Quakers and their critics mainly defined their beliefs by negatives, in terms of what they were against. Unlike many of the Ranters, however, they did not deny the existence of God or a historical Christ, or of heaven and hell. Neither did they believe that all could attain perfection in their earthly life. Most importantly, in terms of social and political attitudes, they did not challenge the authority of parents or magistrates. In the early 1650s, John Bunyan listed Quaker beliefs, which can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Bible is not the Word of God;

(2) Every man in the world has the Spirit of Christ;

(3) The Jesus Christ who was crucified 1600 years ago did not satisfy divine justice for the sins of the people;

(4) Christ’s flesh and blood is within the saints;

(5) There will be no resurrection of the body;

(6) The resurrection has already taken place within good men;

(7) The crucified Jesus did not ascend above the starry heavens and shall not come again on the last day as a man to judge all nations.

In 1654, Fox himself witnessed that Ranters had a pure convincement, but that they had fled the cross and turned the grace of God into wantonness. He emphasised especially drunkenness, swearing, and ‘sporting yourselves in the day-time’. He had a short way with them, because, in his opinion, they bowed and scraped too much and were too complimentary. In his Journal, Fox records many Ranter groups which ultimately became Quaker, in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Reading, for example. In the same year, Anthony Pearson said that “some that are joined to the Ranters are pretty people,” but that they “contained so many rude savage apprentices and young people … that nothing but the power of the Lord can chain them.”  But in 1655, the Quaker James Parnell admitted that the Quakers were accused of ‘being one’ with the Ranters:

Some of them have tasted the love of God and grace of God, and have had appearances of God, but they have turned the grace of God into wantonness, and have deceived so many with their alluring speeches. Their lascivious ways bring discredit on the truth of God.

In the same year, a diarist in Cheshire wrote that Quakers also denied the Trinity; … denied the Scriptures to be the Word of God; they said that they had no sin. From this doctrinal perspective, therefore, it is also possible to see how they might have attracted former Ranters, suggesting that contemporary judges and magistrates were correct in their famous assertions that had not the Quakers come, the Ranters had over-run the nation. In part, no doubt, enemies of the Quakers were anxious to discredit them, claiming that Quakerism had become ‘the common sink of them all’, including Anabaptists, Antinomians, Socinians, Familists, Libertines and Ranters. But there does seem to have been genuine doctrinal confusion as well as ideological fluidity between the memberships of the movements and sects. In Dorset and Wiltshire, former Levellers were alleged to have become Ranters. The Quakers seemed to absorb many ex-Levellers, including John Lilburne. His acceptance of Quakerism in 1655 was a very different act for the former revolutionary than if he had been convinced after 1660. As late as August 1655, the Grand Jury of Gloucestershire petitioned against Ranters, Levellers and atheists, under the name of Quakers. Christopher Atkinson was accepted as a Quaker until in 1655 he fell …

… into too much familiarity and conversation with some women kind, especially such as (it seemed) were somewhat inclined to a spirit of Ranterism. He grew loose and … committed lewdness with a servant-maid.

Mary Todd, a London lady who at a meeting pulled up all her clothes above her middle, exposing her nakedness to all in the room was disowned by the Quakers, who claimed she was a Ranter: but the act of disavowal suggests that they felt some measure of responsibility for her. In the 1650s there were ‘Proud Quakers’, who showed clear ranting tendencies. They used profane language, were lax in conduct; some of them were football players and wrestlers. Their leader, Rice Jones of Nottingham, set up an ale-house. After the restoration, John Perrot claimed a direct command from God that hats should be worn during prayer, a significant Ranter practice which James Nayler had also followed during his time in the West Country. But Perrot went on to deny all human arrangements for worship, even meeting at stated times and places. Fox said that Perrot preached the rotten principles of the Old Ranters, and associated him with Nayler, many of whose former partisans supported Perrot. Long after the restoration, Fox was insisting that some people claiming to be Quakers were really Ranters. Richard Baxter, who had no reason to love the ‘Friends’, paid them a deserved compliment when he wrote:

The Quakers were but the Ranters turned from horrid profaneness and blasphemy to a life of extreme austerity.

But the Quakers could hardly have prevented the Ranters from over-running the country unless their doctrines had been, at least initially, near enough to Ranterism to absorb many Ranters. Edward Burrough had straddled this doctrinal gap between Ranters and Quakers. He may originally have had Ranter sympathies; at one time he worked closely with Perrot and retained confidence in him longer than any other Quaker leader. In addition, as John Lampden has commented, by his preaching in London, Nayler had attracted, amongst other more reputable followers, a clique of married women all more or less tainted with Ranterism. They sought to exalt him by depreciating the work of his predecessors and pursued him with that undiscerning worship which was the chief trial and temptation of the popular preacher. Nevertheless, without naming the Ranters, Nayler himself had spoken disapprovingly that:

The greatest profession now set up by many is to make the redemption of Christ a cover for all liscentious and fleshly liberty, and say they are to that end redeemed.

Nayler’s Mission in the West; Trial & Torture by Parliament:

That was in 1656, a year after Nayler took up his work in London and prior to his ministry in the West. From the first, the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the heart of man had been the central focus of Nayler’s preaching. This point – exaggerated and distorted by his followers – was to become the rock on which his life was wrecked. It was this doctrine which had first attracted the London merchant Robert Rich to Quakerism, who had become his most faithful friend and advocate, becoming caught up into the current of Nayler’s tragedy. He seems to have responded to the call to missionary service which was heard by every primitive Friend, and in 1655 he was in prison in Banbury, together with Nayler’s Yorkshire ‘patron’ with whom he had worked in the North, and two women preachers. There is no record of Nayler’s first meeting with Rich but it is clear that, in the early months of Nayler’s ministry in the capital, he had won the merchant’s heart. This was due in part, no doubt, to his extraordinary charm of manner, but chiefly to the stress that Nayler laid on the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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In October 1656, Nayler staged a triumphal entry into Bristol, shown above, which was blatantly modelled on Christ’s acted parable at Jerusalem. He rode an ass, accompanied by two of his many women disciples, while others spread their garments in his path or walked behind him singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel. With his long hair, unusual for puritan preachers, he bore a natural resemblance to popular images of Jesus, and he emphasised it by the way he cut and combed his hair and beard. Parliament was outraged; it appointed a committee of no fewer than fifty-five members to examine him and his followers, and they took five weeks before they reported to the House on 5 December. Called to the bar the next day, Nayler protested that as a mere creature he claimed no special glory, but shared the common Quaker conviction that Christ dwells in all believers. He was convinced that he had a revelation from God, commanding him to do what he did as a sign of Christ’s coming. There is no evidence that Robert Rich took any part in their extravagances in the West, and he indignantly repelled the charge of Ranterism which was later brought against him. At the crisis of Nayler’s trial for blasphemy, he determined that whatever might be the errors of the preacher’s followers he himself had offended in nothing save, as he said, …

” … in confessing to Christ in the saints, and my love to that testimony made me willing to stand by him in his sufferings and to bear his cross.” 

Rich took up the unpopular role of Nayler’s champion and flung himself into his defence with the generosity which was the most striking trait of his character. Day by day through that dreary November of 1656, while Parliament debated the guilt of Nayler and the punishment meet for it, Rich, ‘the mad merchant’ as he began to be called, haunted the door of the House with petitions and letters, or lay in wait to make a personal appeal to any member whom he judged to have some tinge of pity in him. He even offered to prove to the Parliament out of Scripture that the prisoner had uttered no blasphemy, nor done anything worthy of death or ‘of bonds’. The House spent nine days in hot debate as to what to do with Nayler since under the 1650 Blasphemy Act he could be given no more than six months’ imprisonment for a first offence, and for the bloodthirsty majority in the Commons that was not enough. He escaped the death penalty by only ninety-six votes to eighty-two, due largely to the support of Cromwell’s supporters on the council of state, like Sir Gilbert Pickering. But the Commons sentenced him to a series of corporal punishments, to be carried out in London and Bristol, to be followed by indefinite solitary confinement and hard labour.

Flogged all the way from Westminster to the City on 18 December, 310 stripes left Nayler so weakened that the next stage of his ‘torture’ had to be postponed. Before it was executed, many petitioners, by no means all Quakers, pleaded for the remission of the rest of the sentence, first (in vain) with parliament and then with Cromwell. He immediately wrote to the Speaker, expressing abhorrence of the ‘crimes’ imputed to Nayler, but asking the House to let him know the grounds and reasons whereupon they have proceeded. This challenge to the constitutionality of its actions, which Whitelocke and others had also expressed, caused both further consternation on all sides in addition to further appeals for mercy, but the Commons voted by two to one to carry out the rest of the sentence, so that Nayler was duly branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. Parliament never replied to Cromwell’s letter, but the episode helped to convince its wiser heads that the constitution needed further amendment. In particular, when anything deserving the label ‘torture’ was inflicted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was by order of parliament, not the executive or the judiciary, as was the case, for example, in the reign of James I. The abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords had destroyed the essential separation of powers inherent in the British Constitution.

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A New Constitution & continuing confusion:

The Humble Petition and Advice, as the draft of a new constitution came to be called in 1657, began by asking Cromwell to assume the title of king, though not on a hereditary basis. The most striking proposed change, however, was that parliament was to consist of two houses, with the new one approximating more to a senate than to the hereditary House of Lords, but one which could also operate as a ‘High Court’. Regarding religion, the new constitution was slightly more restrictive than the Instrument of Government which had established the Protectorate, but in practice, this change made little difference. There was to be a confession of faith, agreed between the Protector and parliament, to which clergy who received public maintenance had to conform, but no such document was ever promulgated. For those who dissented from it, toleration was limited to those who accepted the basic doctrine of the trinity and acknowledged both the New and Old Testaments to be the revealed word of God; it was explicitly denied to ‘papists’, prelatists and all ‘blasphemers’ and licentious practitioners, including those who disturbed the public peace. These last exceptions were aimed mainly at Ranters and Quakers, but the authors of the ‘Petition and Advice’ had to steer a course between displeasing intolerant magistrates and offending Cromwell’s breadth of sympathy since their whole enterprise was dependent on his acceptance of their proposals.

Clearly, critics of both sects, even sympathetic ones, continued to conflate both movements on doctrinal grounds, if not on the basis of their demeanour, conduct and practices. Thomas Collier in 1657 asserted that any that know the principles of the Ranters would easily recognise that Quaker doctrines were identical. Both would have…

… no Christ but within; no Scripture to be a rule; no ordinances, no law but their lusts, no heaven nor glory but here, no sin but what men fancied to be so, no condemnation for sin but in the consciences of ignorant ones.

Collier wrote that only Quakers smooth it over with an outward austere carriage before men, but within are full of filthiness, and he gave Nayler as an example of this.

(to be continued…)

Posted March 16, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, Austerity, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Charity, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Commons, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, East Anglia, Egalitarianism, English Civil War(s), eschatology, Gospel of John, History, Home Counties, Jesus Christ, Millenarianism, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Parliament, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reformation, Respectability, Resurrection, Revolution, Scotland, south Wales, The Law, theology, tyranny, Utopianism, Wales, Warfare, West Midlands, Women's History

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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

020

Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

021

Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

022

There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

012

The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

015

The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

002

The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

001

In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

017 (2)

In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

017

Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

001

The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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